Learning in the dark

Pre-vet student spends summer capturing bats

Bat and Net Setup

One day, sophomore Pitt-Bradford student Zoe Halpate wants to be a large animal veterinarian. Right now, though, she’s starting small, capturing flying mammals no bigger than her palm, weighing them in grams, and avoiding their tiny, razor-sharp teeth.

Halpate loves the creatures that make most people shiver. 

This summer, that’s taken her to dark forests where, with the sun already behind the Appalachian Mountains, she and a partner erect filmy “mist nets” to catch bats as they head out for an evening hunt.

The poles for the nets are 24 feet high. The nets have a mesh so fine that they appear to be mist. They are placed in “flyways,” particularly near water, where bats swoop down to take a sip or capture insects.

Once in the net, each bat is gently removed and its vital signs recorded for Halpate’s summer employer, Pittsburgh Wildlife and Environmental Inc., an environmental consulting firm.

PWE conducts the surveys in areas slated for construction to determine whether endangered animals may be present. Since June, Halpate and her netting partner have been surveying bats along a proposed gas pipeline in Western Pennsylvania and West Virginia.

“I’ve always had a love for animals, and there’s not any that I’m really shy of (except for spiders),” she said. “I just think they’re cute.” 

Halpate said her mom is a real biology and science enthusiast who herself worked with flying squirrels for the Powder Mill Nature Reserve and encouraged her to pursue her dream of going to veterinary school.

Only about 12 percent of students who apply to vet school are accepted. Everyone who applies is qualified and has good grades, so Halpate wants to show schools her commitment to animal care with internships that will give her plenty of hands-on experience.

Each night, seven nights a week, all summer, she and a partner have headed out into the woods, set up their nets and waited. They take turns checking the nets every 15 minutes from just before dusk until 2 a.m., reading or watching downloaded movies in between checks.

Other than the nets, Halpate said that a safety vest for visibility and headlamp to see are the only real equipment used. She wears medical gloves to handle the bats and other animals that get caught in the nets (like owls, flying squirrels and moths), but “You feel everything.”

Before heading out into the field this year, Halpate and her partner both received a three-shot preventative vaccine  to protect her from rabies when she gets bitten by a bat. She also received a vaccine for COVID-19.

“Even when the bats are really small, a bite hurts,” she said, adding that it took a couple of weeks to get the hang of removing the bats from the nets, first grabbing them under their chins, then untangling their feet and elbows and lastly their heads.

“Once you get it down, it really is easy. At the beginning, I got bit a lot. Almost every time I tried to get one out. I tried to mentally prepare [for pain], because if you jerk your hand away, you might hurt them.”

(Random bat tip: If a bat has clamped on to your finger, and you blow in its face, it will let go.)

The most common bat Halpate and her partner catch is a “Big Brown,” although it is only four-inches long. When Halpate stretches their wings out to measure them, they span from her thumb to her pinky. Even smaller bats that make appearances in the nets are Long-eared, Red and Silverback.

What they are really on the search for is an endangered Indiana bat, which could require a project to be modified to protect its habitat. Halpate said she has not seen one yet this year, but that another team with the company has. Endangered bats like the Indiana bat have a transmitter put on them, and researchers follow them for as long as they can, hoping to find their roost.

But she’s not catching bats all night long. In fact, she often only catches one or two. Across Appalachia, bat populations are waning, she said, due to a combination of factors that include people encroaching on their habitat and white nose syndrome – a fungus that gives the bats white noses and causes them to wake up early from hibernation, before the insects they eat are prevalent in large enough numbers to sustain them.

“There’s a lot of microdata that we take from these bats,” she said, including whether white nose syndrome is present, wingspan, general condition, sex and whether a female is pregnant or nursing. PWE shares this information with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to monitor bat populations in the region.

Bats are important to ecosystems because they keep the insect population in check, Halpate said. Bats are also prey for snakes, birds and even frogs. “There’s a misconception that they’re rarely on the ground,” she said. “They actually spend some time on the ground because that’s where they can find a lot of bugs, but they’re much more vulnerable there,” crawling clumsily on their forearms.

In addition to lots of animal handling experience this summer, Halpate has also had a chance to learn more about possible careers from her co-workers, who work in museums, parks and as ornithologists. But it hasn’t changed her mind. She still wants to be a large animal veterinarian and hopes to intern with or shadow a vet next summer as they go out on farm calls.

“Not everyone can handle sticking their hand into a cow,” she said. Halpate, of course, can’t wait.